The region is gorgeous. The high alpine mountains of the Mission Range frame the eastern border with patches of snow lasting much of the summer. The valley is broad with small towns bordered by ponds, lakes, and rivers. Flathead Lake, the largest natural lake in the west, forms part of the northern border of the reservation. The Flathead Reservation, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai people is remarkable for its beauty and for the vast array of wildlife which shares its home.
While it’s nearly 1.3 million acres ranks 17th in size for all reservations and is larger than the state of Rhode Island, their ancestral homeland was once over 20 million acres. The Hellgate Treaty of 1855 reduced that area to its present size.
The population of the tribes is roughly 7,500 members with about two-thirds living on or near the reservation. Ten councilmen make up the tribal council. Two districts provide two councilmen each and the other six districts have one each. Vernon Finley is the current chairman.
Within reservation borders are two national areas of note. The National Bison Range of 20,000 acres with roughly 500 bison is in the center of the reservation. It’s hoped that management of the range can soon be transferred to the tribes. Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge is a wetland complex and one of Montana’s Wildlife Viewing Sites. These wetlands have also provided the habitat for reintroduction of trumpeter swans which began in 1996 and have progressed since with increasing success. This area has also become a hot spot for observing predatory birds during winter months.
In 1934 they were the first tribe to take advantage of the terms of the Indian Reorganization Act with the promise of genuine authority over lands under their jurisdiction.
Visitors frequently ask about ‘Indian wars’ but the truth is that the tribes never went to war against the United States, despite being invited to join campaigns by other tribes.
ICTMN talked with Rob McDonald for the tribe’s thoughts of items that should be known about the Flathead Reservation and its tribes. The McDonald name has a long and respected history on this reservation and Rob is the tribe’s Communication Director.
Hydroelectric power – The Confederated Tribes of the Flathead Reservation have been dealing with Pennsylvania Power and Light for purchase of Kerr Dam located on the Flathead River. It’s 541 feet long and 54 feet higher than Niagara Falls. “This fall the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes (CSKT) will become the first tribe in the nation to wholly own and operate a hydroelectric facility,” McDonald explained. “That facility is known as Kerr Dam. On September 5 we will get the car keys to the facility and will become producers and marketers of over a million kilowatts of electricity.”
The hydroelectric plant located just below Kerr Dam
Wilderness– “In 1979 we established the Mission Mountain Tribal Wilderness. We’ve added additional acreage to it since.” This is the only true tribal wilderness in the country and supports populations of such animals as grizzly and black bears, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, two species of deer, elk, and many smaller species.
Mission Mountains rise behind a pond on the reservation
Salish and Kootenai cultures – Many tribes speak different dialects of the Salish language. This includes coastal Salish from Oregon into British Columbia and Interior Salish east of the coastal mountains. McDonald explained that the Confederated Salish and Pend d’Oreille of the Flathead Reservation are the easternmost Salish band. “We are the Bitterroot Salish. Many people get this incorrect. We’re home to the Confederated Salish which are the Salish and the Pend d’Oreille, plus the Kootenai Tribe. The Salish and Kootenai have different language, different culture and different practices.”
Steven Small Salmon is a Pend d’Oreille elder who works in the language program and dances at powwows.
Language -- “The Kootenai language is known as a language isolate. It’s not related to any other known language in the world. There are Kootenai classes and Kootenai curriculum textbooks and dictionaries as there are for Salish. It’s an effort to keep both languages alive,” McDonald explained.
Wildlife Management – Highway 93 traverses the reservation from south to north and is a prime route for people traveling to such parks as Glacier and Banff. “Highway 93 has emerged as the national model for a highway coexisting with wildlife. Thirty-seven wildlife crossings have been constructed along the 56 miles through the reservation and 10 more are planned. We are in the ballpark for the most animal highway crossings of anyplace in the country and only matched by some locations in Canada.” In 2012 the National Wildlife Federation presented the reservation with the prestigious “Connie” award as the “Outstanding Conservation Organization” in the country.
The Flathead Reservation is a national leader in creating wildlife crossings through the reservation.
Louis Charlo – “Louis Charlo is a prominent slice of our history. He was the great grandson of Chief Charlo, chief from 1870 to 1910, and Louis was part of the original flag raising at Iwo Jima. Louie was a Marine and an inspiration for many young people here who joined the services because of him.” An etching in stone of Louis Charlo stands in testimonial near tribal headquarters in Pablo, Montana. Charlo died about two weeks after the flag raising when he was shot while trying to rescue a fellow Marine.
Salish Kootenai College – SKC was originally a branch of Flathead Valley Community College but broke those ties in 1981 and became accredited in 1984, the first tribal college in the northwest to accomplish that. In 1989 they became just the third tribal college in the nation to offer a registered nursing program. They now offer 5 vocational programs, 19 association degrees and baccalaureate degrees in such fields as hydrology, psychology, forestry, nursing, life sciences and the unique field of Tribal Historical Preservation.
McDonald added, “The basketball teams, men and women have been very successful. Since 2000 the men have won nine national tribal basketball championships and the women have won five.”
Business – “The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes launched a suite of successful technology companies which began with S&K Electronics and later S&K Technologies. S&K Technologies is located in St.Ignatius and is a family of five companies employing more than 400 people working in such areas as aerospace, engineering, logistics and information technology globally to both government and commercial customers. In 2014 alone they delivered more than $1 million in dividends to CSKT.”
S&K Electronics dates its origin back to 1984 and now employs about 100 people in 40,000 square feet of space in three buildings and working with both military and commercial customers in electromechanical assembly. Their latest contract is a five-year contract for the Nuclear-Biological-Chemical Heater. The first year’s value should approach $3 million.
S&K Gaming LLC is another business entity of the tribes. CEO Sheila Matt explained they manage both the Gray Wolf Peak Casino north of Missoula and the KwaTaqNuk Resort and Casino on the pristine shoreline of Flathead Lake in Polson. They also operate and manage tribally owned Polson Marina and recently purchased a second marina at Big Arm, Montana adding jobs and an economic boost to the community.
Boxing – “An esteemed tribal member, Marvin Camel, held the distinction of being the first person recognized as cruiser weight champion of the world by two different professional sanctioning bodies” McDonald said. “He fought a Yugoslavian to a draw in the first cruiser weight title bout and in the rematch he beat him for the title in 1980. A book has recently come out about him called Warrior in the Ring.”
People’s Place – McDonald also pointed out a unique cultural center, more than a museum and located in Pablo. It provides a living encounter with tribal cultures highlighting their heritage. Beading classes are offered along with other educational activities but it’s also a place to laugh and swap stories and a place for people of all nationalities and tribal affiliations to visit.